Eye Contact

Something we’ve all been told is that eye contact is important for developing quick rapport. The advice tends to quickly dry up or fracture upon requesting specific ratios. Are you supposed to just stare unblinking at a person’s eyeballs for the entire conversation? The people giving this advice are generally responding to a perceived deficit in somebody they are observing, but this can easily be a cultural difference. The reality is that optimal eye contact will vary by culture and even the context of the conversation. Most people work out what feels right by intuition and subconscious mirroring, and are therefore unable to provide a meaningful response when asked to provide the correct ratios. Fortunately, studies on eye contact have been performed and the results are in. There is a correct answer to the question of eye contact ratios and you can test it for yourself.

Conversational Eye Contact

In a one-on-one in-person conversation, the normal level of eye contact will vary by the role you are performing. In Western culture the standard expectation is that the person delivering information should be looking at the receiver 30% of the time, while the receiver is looking at them 60% of the time. Small adjustments in these ratios will occur throughout the conversation to indicate intimacy or distance. A speaker who maintains 35-40% eye contact may give the impression of intimacy which may be appropriate in some contexts but not others. Excessive eye contact gives an impression of intensity which can create an experience of discomfort in others. In a context where there is a perceived power difference, excessive eye contact may also be interpreted as insolence. Insufficient eye contact when in a receiver role can be perceived as an offensive indication of disinterest.

In a Western context where the 30/60 ratio is a typical expectation an easy way to maintain appropriate levels of eye contact is to divide your points of focus into thirds. While in a receiver role, you can look at their left eye, then their right eye, then something else. If your attention is divided in exact thirds you will end up with 66% eye contact which gives an impression of intense interest in what the speaker is saying without appearing excessive. When it is your turn to speak you can shift your focal points to their eyes, distant object 1, distant object 2. Again, this gives you a slightly higher than average eye contact ratio which has the effect of making you appear engaged without being intimidating.

A more advanced approach can be applied by adjusting your level of eye contact to match the person you are engaging with. In some East Asian cultures it is customary to observe a conversation partner’s feet during conversation. There are also neurodivergent people who intuitively express their emotions through body movements rather than facial expression. In contexts where engagement is being primarily communicated through methods other than facial expression it is appropriate to use the 30/60 ratio but to direct your gaze toward the nonverbal indicator rather than a person’s eyes. Because of allistic privilege, neurotypical people tend to have poor communication skills when engaging with neurodiverse groups. An effective communicator is somebody who can observe the preferred communication style of their conversation partner and adapt to accomodate their preferences.

In one-on-one communication, mirroring and guiding approaches can be applied to eye contact. Instead of trying to only look at them when they look at you, mirroring eye contact requires observing what ratio of eye contact they maintain when functioning in sender and receiver roles and then copying those ratios in your own eye contact levels. After a few minutes mirroring, you can then increase your eye contact duration in the receiver role to indicate an increased interest. If their eye contact ratios adjust to match yours then you are able to guide their nonverbal communication and they will find themselves becoming more engaged in the conversation as they experience elevated feelings of intimacy. This does not necessarily equate to romantic interest but rather they will intuitively feel that you are connecting on a similar wavelength and are able to understand each other in a special way which they would normally only experience with people they’ve known for many years.

FaceTime Eye Contact

Video chat has very different eye contact ratios to in-person one-on-one eye contact. Because you don’t really have anything other than the face on the screen to look at, eye contact tends to be close to 100% for both sender and receiver roles.

So while older generations love to bemoan how computers are destroying young people’s social skills, the reality is that while generations who adapted to text only conversations are prone to lower ratios of eye contact, those who’ve grown up with video chat have average ratios well above the 30/60 ratio when having in-person interactions. Far from a degradation of social skills, each generation demonstrates communication styles which are ideally adapted to the communication mediums they are accessing. In addition to increased eye contact, the FaceTime generation displays a greater capacity for identifying emotional information and subtext through facial cues. Body language awareness is reduced though.

Public Speaking Eye Contact

When addressing a group, the techniques described above can be quickly adapted to create similar effects on a crowd. By dividing a group into three distinct chunks, a speaker can shift their focus evenly between the groups to give 33% eye contact to each of the groups. If you already know what you intend to say there is no need to divert your eyes while speaking to gather your thoughts so individual members of the audience can each have an experience where they sense a slightly above average level of intimacy from you dispute the fact that you are addressing an entire room of people.

Initially this technique will feel awkward for people who are accustomed to using intuition to regulate their eye contact ratios, but anybody who has had to adapt to masking in order to function at levels of eye contact preferred by neurotypical people in western cultures will find the additional adjustment is no more challenging than maintaining a 30/60 ratio in one-on-one conversations. The improvement in audience engagement which can be achieved with this technique will make the investment worthwhile for anybody who needs to address groups larger than three on a regular basis.

Blinking Ratios and Pupil Dilation

Like prolonged eye contact, reduced blinking and elevated pupil dilation can create a sense of closeness and intense connection but will backfire into creepiness when applied ineptly.

In a romantic setting, it can be conducive to establishing a sense of closeness by strategic use of a dimmer switch. Movie theatres and candle lit restaurants are popular dating options for a reason.

Blinking rate is a little harder to regulate without causing discomfort, but some judicious used of eye drops can help offset some of the negative impacts that eye irritation may cause to your social engagements. If you are wanting to regulate your blinking in otherwise optimal circumstances, a small movement of the eyelids without actually closing your eyes can alleviate the desire to blink briefly but will leave your eyes feeling dry when applied for extended durations.

The negative experience and distraction created by having dry eyes can offset any benefit you might gain by blinking less so these strategies should only be applied if all other variables have been controlled for and you are looking for minor refinements to work on. There are many other areas of communication with a greater return on investment than this, but if you are after a particular effect the unblinking stare creates an intensity with few rivals. To see this effect at work, try having a staring competition with a cat or new born baby. Both are experts in non-verbal control of adult human behaviour and are worth learning from.

In summary, ideal eye contact ratios will vary by context but there are some good general rules to remember.

1. Normal in person conversational eye contact will generally require looking at a person’s face for two thirds of the conversation when they are talking and one third of the conversation when you are talking to be perceived as engaged but not excessive.

2. Digital communication has an expectation that you will look at the screen most of the time but it isn’t necessary to look directly at the camera during a conversation unless you are delivering a monologue.

3. Eye contact when addressing groups can be hacked of you know your content cold and can split your focus over the whole group with zero rest time.

4. Dark rooms and eye drops can elevate a sense of intensity with your eye contact.

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